It comes as no surprise that the recent BBC drama A Poet in New York starring Rev's Tom Hollander drew inspiration from John Malcolm Brinnin's book Dylan Thomas in America. Brinnin's work, well-known for its role in the promulgation of the Welsh poet's mythology, guides us through Thomas' wayward final years into his seemingly inexorable demise. In this work, Thomas is perpetuated as the obstreperous little toe-rag - paradoxically loved and loathed by those around him - who squandered his genius through misguided and self-destructive decisions.
The public persona of Thomas, embodied in Brinnin's book, is often the focus of articles concerning the writer and this year, on the centenary of his birth, one can expect plenty more of the same. It seems almost unnatural to write about Thomas without mentioning that he was a drunkard and a womanizer. It seems equally unnatural not to compensate for this pronouncement with a sturdy declaration of his brilliance.
These two sides of Thomas the man - the playful drunkard and the poignant genius - can be observed by the more astute reader when exploring his writing. When reading Thomas, one tends to see the playful little rascal in certain works - such as the short story Old Garbo from his collection Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog - and the poignant master in others - such as the poems 'And death shall have no dominion' and 'Do not go gentle into that good night'. On occasion, when he is at his finest, one can see both sides of Thomas in a single work.
The playful and the profound Thomas can be witnessed simultaneously in his celebrated radio play Under Milk Wood. In this work, which follows the lives of those who occupy the fictional Welsh village of Llareggub, Thomas explores the mundane through his playful language and poetic script. At one particular moment, Thomas the rascal surfaces to describe the anguish of the solipsist Reverend Eli Jenkins over the death of his Father - a one-legged, alcoholic farmer: 'Poor Dad,' grieves the Reverend Eli, 'to die of drink and agriculture.' On the following page, the profound Thomas makes an appearance, as Reverent Eli recites some of his poetry:
'We are not wholly bad or good,
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And thou, I know, wilt be the first,
To see our best side, not our worst.'
The ever-charming Under Milk Wood has the wonderful capacity to present the mundane in a paradoxically poignant yet light-hearted manner. This work allows the reader to laugh on one page and marvel in admiration on the next. Perhaps something similar could have been said about Thomas himself.
The playful and the profound also appear in Thomas' thoroughly underappreciated movie script The Doctor and the Devils. This gripping tale, which was made into a film starring Timothy Dalton in 1985, is based on the grisly and somewhat absurd story of the infamous murderers Burke and Hare and the renowned anatomist who uses their supply of 'fresh' bodies for the pursuit of science. Thomas tackles this dark tale with a great sense of humour, yet provides profundity to match this light touch. Dr. Thomas Rock, the brilliant anatomist, after being approached by a homeless gentleman during the madness of the story, says:
'Oh, how the pious would lift their hands to heaven to think of a man giving money to an idiot so that he could get drunk and be warm for an hour or two. Let him rather die a sober frozen idiot in the gutter!'
This is emblematic of the nature of this story - comical, dark and at times slightly unsettling, yet never lacking in playfulness and profundity. This is Thomas the sober writer utilizing his greatest talents.
The idea of a profound yet cantankerous rapscallion is well established when discussing the mythology of Thomas the man, yet it is often overlooked when interpreting his work. Through reading Thomas' biographies - and watching the plays, the biopics, the rare documentary and the occasional television programme - one is drawn to the belief that he was a playful yet profound genius. What is perhaps underappreciated is that, when reading Thomas' work, one is often led to the very same belief.